Smart Growth:
From Fantasy to Fact

Presentation to

Technologie, transports et modes de vie

Palais du Luxembourg


6 December 2001


By Wendell Cox,

Wendell Cox Consultancy


It is a pleasure to be here with you today. I first of all want to express the gratitude of Americans for the strong support France has provided after the tragic events of September 11. Your president, Jacques Chirac was the first international leader to visit our country after the attacks and was the first to visit the World Trade Center site.


Today I may say some things that will be very surprising and may, in fact, be upsetting to some of you. There is international concern about urban sprawl --- the tendency of our cities to consume more land. There is no doubt that this is happening. But there is serious question about the extent to which, if any, it is a problem. Much of the data analysis I will present is based upon information from the recent Jeffrey Kenworthy and Felix Laube volume on international cities and transport from 1960 to 1990.


A strong anti-sprawl movement has emerged around the world. In the United States, the movement uses the title “smart growth,’” and I intend to describe to you the problems with smart growth today.


The smart growth movement largely holds that we need to make our urban areas more compact and dense, so that less land is taken. In addition, smart growth seeks to significantly increase public transport use, while discouraging both auto use and highway construction. Principal smart growth strategies involve rationing --- rationing of land through development bans in certain areas and urban growth boundaries --- rationing development by larger per unit fees, ostensibly to provide infrastructure.


Two rationales for smart growth are particularly erroneous. The first is that urban sprawl must be contained to preserve valuable agricultural land. Indeed, agriculture has become much more productive throughout the world, and we simply don’t need all the land that was required for agricultural production before. Over the past 50 years, urbanization in the United States has consumed less than one-fifth of the land that has been taken out of agricultural production. The second erroneous rationale is that urbanization is consuming open space. In fact, over the last 50 years, 1.5 hectares of rural parks have been established for every 1.0 hectare of new urbanization (Figure).



If you followed the debate in the United States, you would get the impression that urban sprawl and suburbanization were exclusively American issue. I presume you know that our American central cities have lost population, while suburban areas have grown significantly. I presume that you also know that the same thing has happened in European cities. Virtually all of the growth has been in the suburbs for approximately 50 years.


You can see this by considering the population density losses of the Paris urban (developed) area compare to that of Chicago. While Chicago started from a lower 1960 base, the rate of density loss in the Paris area has been greater (Figure).



Of course, it is clear to all that American cities are less dense than those in other parts of the world. European urban areas are five times as dense as those in the United States (Figure). But as I noted before, virtually all urban areas are sprawling to lower densities.



There is a close relationship between high density and high public transport market share. In Europe, public transport market share is about 20 percent. This compares to less than two percent in the United States (Figure). And if New York is excluded, the figure is closer to one percent. In fact, New York is the most untypical of American cities and resembles a European city more.



The smart growth advocates tell us that urban sprawl has created traffic congestion, and that if we will just impose their solutions, conditions will improve. Nothing could be further from the truth. Traffic densities rise as population density rises. This is clear from both the domestic US and international evidence. With its higher population densities, Europe, with its higher urban densities, has double the traffic densities of the United States (Figure).



It is, of course, true, that as population densities rise, people tend to drive less. But the reduction in per capita driving is not even close to that which would be required to reduce overall traffic volumes. In the United States, traffic volumes tend to increase from 0.8 to 0.9 percent for each 1.0 percent increase in density (Figure).



But because higher traffic intensity increases traffic congestion, average travel speeds are reduced. This means that not only is there higher travel density, but there is a higher density of vehicle hours. Further, the US evidence shows that air pollution reduction is optimized between 55 and 90 kilometers per hour --- a speed well above the average achieved in urban areas (Figure). The theory is proven by the performance. Both nationally and internationally, higher densities are associated with higher air pollution intensity.




The NOx table is typical of the comparative pollution densities of international cities (Figure).



Meanwhile, air pollution is going away. We have seen driving increase approximately 30 percent since 1970. Yet, air pollution has fallen, from 5 percent for NOx to more than 40 percent for CO2 and 60 percent for VOCs (Figure).



Because traffic densities are lower, and travel speeds are greater, cities that sprawl more tend to have lower journey to work travel times, both domestically and internationally . This is exactly the opposite of what is advertised by the smart growth lobby. In the United States, the average automobile commute speed is more than 55 kph. The average public transport commute speed is approximately 22 kph. This means that people who have cars have access to five times as much geographical area in which to travel and work.



Then there is the matter of public transport. Public transport is very effective in certain markets. Public transport provides a valuable service in highly dense core cities and to employment in the cores of such cities. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a much more effective public transport system that RATP provides with buses and the metro in the ville de Paris. But the suburbs are another matter.


This is illustrated by Portland, Oregon, our leading ecological city. Portland has adopted all manner of smart growth policies, including a highly restrictive urban growth boundary and substantial increases in public transport service. Yet, even in Portland, few people can get to their jobs on public transport that is automobile competitive outside downtown. Public Transport provides reasonably time competitive service to the central business district, from 78 percent of residences in the urban area. But less than 15 percent of the metropolitan area’s jobs are in the central business district. The other 85 percent have little, if any transit service. Our survey of 100 Portland suburban locations leads to a conclusions that, on average, fewer than five percent of residents can reach a particular suburban work location on public transport that is time competitive (Figure). That means, quite simply that people will not ride public transport, because they will not take trips of 90 minutes or more that can be accomplished in 20 to 40 minutes by car.



Which bring us back to Paris --- that ultimate city of western civilization. No urban area has a more dense core. No city is more walkable or public transport oriented. Portland is surely not Paris.


Indeed, Paris is not Paris. The city that we associate with Paris is only a small core of a much larger urban area. Approximately 80 percent of the people in the Paris area live outside the ville de Paris. Approximately 85 percent of the employment is outside the core. Generally, time competitive public transport service is not provided from suburban residential locations to suburban work locations. There is no doubt that the public transport system effectively serves the central city, and also provides effective service to the central city from the suburbs on RER. But in this ultimate of western cities, public transport simply does not provide time competitive mobility in the suburbs.


You are not going to force the millions of Americans who live in the suburbs into the city. Neither are you going to force 8 million Parisians into the city from the suburbs.


Whatever we do in the central city it is time to recognize that there are not the financial resources to provide the comprehensive time competitive public transport services that  would be required to effectively serve suburb to suburb markets. In many cities, suburb to suburb markets are commanding virtually all of the growth.


But there is more. American anti-sprawl activists like to claim that low income households are disproportionately harmed by sprawl. And, while sprawl tends to increase transport expenditures, it lowers others. The cost of living is generally lower in more sprawling urban areas (Figure). This is probably also true in Europe, where higher distribution costs due to slower operating speeds and higher labor costs generally tend to be associated with more dense areas.



Which brings me to perhaps the most important point --- that smart growth increases social inequity. The American dream of home ownership has achieved an record household rate of 70 percent in recent years. Yet, as you know, America has less affluent minorities, especially African Americans (blacks) and Hispanics. Their home ownership rates remain in the 45 percent to 50 percent range, well below that of non-Hispanic whites. But in recent years there has been progress, and minority home ownership has risen at a faster rate than that of non-Hispanic whites.


But as anyone with the most remote acquaintance with economics knows, when you ration a scarce good, the price goes up. So as the smart growth advocates implement their urban growth boundaries, they ration land and drive the price up, not only of land but of other factors of housing production, since their rationing also reduces competition in the home building and development industry. The effect can be seen in eco-friendly Portland, where housing affordability has dropped by far the most of any major urban area in the last decade (Figure). Portland apologists have tried to claim that Portland’s strong population growth is responsible for the rising prices, but that does not explain why Phoenix and Atlanta, with much stronger growth, experienced improvements in affordability over the same period. In the San Francisco Bay area, planners are rationing housing development through very large development impact fees, which are the same rate regardless of the value of house being constructed. This has been a significant contributing factor to San Francisco’s high cost housing market, which is the nation’s least affordable.



And so the anti-sprawl movement and smart growth does not deliver on its promises. There is more traffic, more time in traffic, more pollution, higher cost and more social exclusion. This is not to support urban sprawl, it is rather to support development wherein urban planners interfere with market forces to a minimum.


A year or so ago, a number of us of like mind met in the Rocky Mountains and adopted the :”Lone Mountain Compact,” which set out principles of market based development. The key philosophical underpinning of that statement is that (Figure):


absent a material threat to others or the community, people should be allowed to live and work how and where they like.


Such a view is consistent with the philosophies of our two nations, that have faced so many challenges through the years to preserve liberty.



(c) 2001 --- Wendell Cox Consultancy --- Permission granted to use with attribution.
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